THE WORD ‘EMBROILED’ depicts imagery of a painful, laborious struggle with no real end in sight. Consequently, within the realms of football speak, the word is quite appositely associated with a relegation dogfight. However this season the word could easily be appropriated by Arsenal’s involvement in the Premier League title race; a chaotic concoction of discombobulated rich clubs capable of the sublime and the ridiculous in equal measure. And Leicester.
You see, Arsenal have somehow contrived to ‘embroil’ themselves in this season’s title race. They have managed this as, while they currently sit atop the table, they do so only by a margin of two points. They have lost 20 per cent of their fixtures. In what has thus far been a gloriously unpredictable shoot-out reminiscent of a Tarantino flick, the Gunners are ahead of everyone else. But only just. They too are both cut and bruised, just a little bit less than the rest.
Arsenal’s continued vulnerabilities were no more painfully exposed than on a Boxing Day trip to Southampton at the close of 2015. They were on the back of a morale-boosting 2-1 win over title rivals Manchester City. In contrast, their hosts hadn’t won in five. This match showed the full extent of Arsenal’s defensive malleability. Southampton struck four times without reply. By the end, Arséne Wenger had that half-angry, half-confused schoolteacher look; a face that has become all too familiar down the years.
All of English football’s most prestigious clubs have suffered in one way or another this season. Chelsea and Liverpool are both on their second manager of the campaign, Manchester United have been decidedly underwhelming and Manchester City have been inconsistent to a fault, putting successive wins together just once following their imperious five-in-a-row opening. So why focus specifically on Arsenal? Because while the title is explicitly there for them this season, they show little sign of security in taking it.
In the aftermath to their 1-0 home defeat to Swansea on May 11, 2015, Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher proposed on Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football show that Arsenal were in need of a quality goalkeeper. Neville said: “You could argue they have struggled for a goalkeeper since Jens Lehmann and David Seaman. It’s a struggle to win a title without a great goalkeeper, a massive struggle.” Neville and Carragher’s analysis was representative of a widespread view.
That summer Arsenal signed Petr Čech, an experienced custodian, from rivals Chelsea. Until Čech’s arrival at the Emirates, very rarely – if ever at all – had such large swathes of column space been dedicated to a team’s signature of a 33-year-old ‘keeper. The Czech Republic international was seen by many as the missing piece of Wenger’s lustrous jigsaw. Now, behind all those elegant, graceful players stood a calm, formidable giant of a shot-stopper. Given this, as well as the falling by the wayside of most of Arsenal’s traditional rivals, it began to feel as if 2016 would be their year. But it hasn’t been so simple.
Unwillingness or inability to add sensibly in the transfer market, as well as fragility both tactical and psychological in nature have been cited in the past as Arsenal’s most persistent causes of trauma. While the former issue was apparently eliminated by the signing of Čech, the latter issues seemingly remain.
The club has been remarkably consistent. While finishing outside the top two is a regular occurrence, Arsenal have also remained inside the top four for two decades. Wenger has produced a team capable of reaching – and competing in – the Champions League on an annual basis, something that ensures additional revenues for his club and, perhaps, has stabilised his personal status as manager even in times when silverware and title challenges were not forthcoming.
Wenger’s position is a relatively comfortable one as things stand, with Arsenal peeking above the mire domestically and edging into the second round of the Champions League, but the club’s status may soon be less sure.
In a world where subtext gets lost in the initial appearance of things, Arsenal’s topping the Premier League table is an assurance that their status remains safe. But an analysis of historic trends offers an alternate view. Arsenal’s 42 points is the lowest tally for any Premier League table-topper at this stage of the season since the 2002-03 campaign. In the years since, such a points total would guarantee a top-four spot but no more. On average the total needed to obtain top spot by this stage lay between 47 and 48 points. These statistics provide an inescapable feeling that Arsenal’s being first is more about the decreasing quality around them, rather than increasing quality within.
Added to those historical figures, alternative dangers lie in wake in the near future. With the enticing near-probability of Pep Guardiola innovating and experimenting with Manchester City, the real possibility of a Manchester United driven more and more by resultism, and Jürgen Klopp firing Liverpool forward into the future, Wenger and Arsenal’s top four safety net may be eroding. And that is before a more local threat is taken into account, that of a Tottenham side boasting one of Europe’s finest young tacticians and an outstanding crop of young talent.
LONDON’S FOOTBALL LADDER was shaken this season not by Arsenal’s topping the table. For while Wenger and his merry band of technicians joined the title race, reigning champions Chelsea were embroiled in something far worse.
When José Mourinho returned to Stamford Bridge in 2013, he did so in search of a project. His unusual talk of playing more attractive football and longer-term involvement hinted at a man who, at 49-years-old, was in the midst of the football manager’s equivalent of a mid-life crisis. In the end it wasn’t a particular style that he would be left hankering for, it was good old results. A series of disastrous defeats allied with other strange incidents would bring an early curtain down on his quest for something lasting after less than three years back at Chelsea.
The first disaster was the sale of Čech to Arsenal in a deal that strengthened Chelsea’s title rivals. Reportedly, Mourinho fumed privately at the decision. Then there was the opening weekend of the league season, when physio Eva Carneiro rushed onto the field of play to treat an Eden Hazard who Mourinho felt was not in need of such attention. Mourinho was openly apoplectic. Chelsea drew with Swansea that day before going off the rails with a flow of poor results that wouldn’t abate. On 17 December, Mourinho and Chelsea parted ways by mutual consent after a ninth league defeat of the season.
Guus Hiddink was called in to fill the managerial void, though the Dutchman wasn’t new to the job. He previously took over in 2009 after Luiz Felipe Scolari’s ill-fated period as manager came to an end. Hiddink was popular with the fans and led the club to the Champions League semi-finals and an FA Cup victory. His achievements form part of an interesting theory which Chelsea seem to have stumbled upon and unconsciously practised over the years.
Since Mourinho’s first exit, Chelsea have managed to generally maintain performance with an oft unstable managerial situation. Over this period of time, the club has appointed nine different managers. It’s worth noting that this figure includes Hiddink’s first spell, though does not take into account the four games of his second, nor the fleeting one-match reigns of Ray Wilkins and Steve Holland. During this time, Chelsea’s managerial appointments have been made up of two roughly differing types which, regardless of contractual length, could be put into categories of ‘leaders’ and ‘stop-gaps’.
The leaders were those highly-rated managers expected to improve performance over a number of years, such as Luiz Felipe Scolari, Carlo Ancelotti, André Villas-Boas and Mourinho the second time around. The stop-gaps were those brought in to (at least initially) revive the team over a more temporary period. This category could feasibly include Hiddink, as well as Avram Grant, Roberto Di Matteo and Rafa Benítez. The reasons the ‘stop-gaps’ have been categorised as such are that: Hiddink was an interim appointment with other duties as Russian national team manager, Grant was a relative unknown who served as the club’s Director of Football before being handed the job following Mourinho’s first departure, Di Matteo was the club’s assistant manager who became caretaker manager following Villas-Boas’ sacking, and Benítez was also an interim appointment.
In 331 games, the leaders achieved a 56.19 per cent win ratio. They picked up two domestic championships, thanks to Ancelotti and Mourinho, as well as one FA Cup and one League Cup. However the stop-gap appointments rivalled their more illustrious appointments’ successes. Between them Grant, Hiddink, Di Matteo and Benítez achieved a 62.65 per cent win ratio from a smaller but not insignificant pool of 166 games. In the process, they won one Champions League, one Europa League and two FA Cups. Astonishingly, Chelsea’s two major European honours of late were won under managers acting in caretaker and interim capacities.
League performance is perhaps a greater measure of longevity and thus it comes as no surprise that those labelled as ‘leaders’ won two Premier League titles as opposed to the stop-gaps zero, but the latter category of managers’ notable achievements in cup competitions provided a reasonably solid basis for the idea that Chelsea, as much as Mourinho may have wished otherwise, are not in need of a project manager, someone in it for the long haul.
In Soccernomics (2009), Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski argue that “managers or coaches (call them what you like) simply don’t make that much difference.” They proposed that a team’s wage bill correlated more closely with success than any managerial appointment. Chelsea’s recent history could be utilised in favour of this argument, as it seems that their (often highly-paid) players tend to react positively to a new manager, even if that manager is untrusted by fans, unknown by the general public, even without relevant qualifications for the job. The club’s accumulation of silverware in spite of such managerial uncertainty testifies to the notion that the players occasionally require fresh guidance, perhaps by way of new tactical and motivational methods, but do not suffer much from a lack of long-termism in the dugout.
Unfortunately for Chelsea, their cavalier approach to managers hasn’t helped them this season, stuck as they have been for much of it towards the bottom end of the league table. Theoretically, the strategic effects of their steady succession of managers cannot have a good impact on building the club’s identity, internally or externally.
While keeping managers on their toes appears to have won Chelsea trophies in recent years, it has done so to the detriment of the implementation of any philosophy. This won’t be helped by the dismissal of Mourinho, the only manager who was synonymous with the club since its upturn in fortunes from 2004 onwards.
CHELSEA HAVE AN ABUNDANCE OF YOUNG TALENT, though due to their policy towards managers the benefits of this source of footballing potential have not been realised. Instead the likes of Nathan Ake, Nathaniel Chalobah, Lewis Baker and Dominic Solanke have been sent out on loan to gain experience while their parent club hunts victory on a week-by-week basis.
Back in North London, Tottenham present a refreshing antithesis to Chelsea’s stunted, ephemeral ideology. At the beginning of the season, their squad had the lowest average age in the Premier League. Through their scouting network, transfer policy and player development, Tottenham are in the midst of a fruitful phase that combines the raw enthusiasm of youth with the meticulous organisation and discipline of a demanding task-master in Mauricio Pochettino, himself a man with room for growth in his field.
The difference between Tottenham’s attitude to youth and that of their domestic rivals is that they seem intent not just on nurturing players in training and showering them with hefty wages, but on testing them, giving them practical experience. They are investing time as well as money into the production of their team with a wide-eyed awareness of the future.
This is portrayed clearly simply by glancing over a Tottenham team-sheet. There isn’t a player over the age of 30. Most are in their early-to-mid 20s. The team’s age profile is more noticeable when scrolling beyond their defensive line, aptly so given that youthful exuberance is typically better suited to attack, or at least to attacking play, perhaps because of the connotations of naivety associated with young footballers, a willingness to experiment that is traditionally more appreciated the closer it is to the opponent’s defence.
Eric Dier has shown versatility normally seen in players flourishing from the academies of Ajax or Barcelona, if not the playmaking qualities. This season the 21-year-old has blossomed in a defensive midfield area, where his combination of strength and technique has been used intelligently. Alongside him, the 19-year-old Dele Alli has sprouted with incredible speed into one of the most precocious young players in Europe thanks to his tenacity, self-confidence and skill. Up front, Harry Kane leads the line with composure and a level of maturity beyond his 22 years.
All three have been called up for England, all three have been capped. The same goes for Ryan Mason, a hard-working 24-year-old academy graduate who stepped up to the first-team, like Kane, in the 2014-15 campaign, Pochettino’s first in the White Hart Lane dugout. Others to breakout more recently include the crisp-passing Tom Carroll (23) and solid Welsh left-back Ben Davies (22), who was signed from Swansea and looks to have usurped Danny Rose in the Tottenham line-up.
This appears to be an ideology ingrained not only in the training ground and on the pitch, but in the club hierarchy, with transfer strategy also seemingly dictated first and foremost by an interest in mouldable talent as opposed to finished articles, something proven by Tottenham’s pursuit, purchase and playing of Christian Eriksen, Erik Lamela, Son Heung-Min and Kevin Wimmer, all of whom are 23, as well as Clinton N’Jie, who is 22. It is hard to fathom this policy is a coincidence given the preferences of the incumbent manager.
For a while Tottenham have toyed with the supposedly continental, the importation of foreign coaches for the transposition of their ideals onto the club. It has had generally poor results. Jacques Santini, Juande Ramos and André Villas-Boas all failed to leave an imprint on the club before Pochettino came in 2014, fresh off a productive spell at Southampton. The Argentine brought with him a specific set of tenets.
In his profile of the manager for Twenty-Minute Reads, Thore Haugstad opines that, “The triangle of Pochettino’s regime consists of high pressing, fitness work and young players.” High pressing and young players tend to go well together, given the tactic requires excellent levels of fitness, something that tends to decline with age. However it also requires very intensive coaching to perfect, which is where Pochettino comes in.
A fan of order, the 43-year-old has garnered a reputation for punishing graft in a bid to imbue his teams with unrivalled stamina. This in turn allows them to commit to the high pressing style Pochettino so desires. Muhammad Ali once said that in boxing, “The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses – behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.” Pochettino has a similar thoughts regarding the process of improvement. He once espoused of his mentality that, “Our philosophy is ‘suffer in training so you don’t suffer in the game.’” Evidently, Tottenham are managed by a fighter.
Pochettino’s side are in a strong position to qualify for Champions League football at the midway point of this season. Well ahead of Chelsea, a manageable six-point gap separates them from their table-topping North London neighbours, Arsenal. But in spite of this, and the fact that Tottenham have lost just twice all season, there exists a stultifying mood that their progress is something not built to last. It is a mood founded in the club’s proclivity for selling their finest individual talent due to an inability to resist the highest prices from richer clubs. In 2006 it was Michael Carrick, in 2008 Dimitar Berbatov and Robbie Keane, in 2012 Luka Modrić, in 2013 Gareth Bale. There are marked differences between those times and the present situation, however; one being that Pochettino’s Tottenham isn’t built around one or two players, another that there is greater squad depth.
Another reason for the notion that Tottenham’s success will be short-lived is perhaps Pochettino’s career climb. He has moved up the managerial ladder, getting to where he is today via Espanyol and Southampton. For some it is an inevitability that, when an even bigger club comes calling, he will answer. That, however, is a presumptuous assertion to make.
Exactly how much of an impact Pochettino’s Tottenham can make on the national game remains unclear, but there is no doubt they can turn the tables on a regional level. Where Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal appear comfortable with their achievements, Pochettino’s Tottenham are driven to do more. Where Chelsea lack identity, Tottenham possess clarity. London’s established footballing hierarchy has been challenged this season; in the coming years it could be morphed entirely.
By Blair Newman. Follow @TheBlairNewman